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April 1, 2015

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Stepping up for a change

SONY DSCInternational business adviser and community leader Dr John Izzo will chair this year’s IOSH conference. Keynote speaker on the first day, he explains why taking personal responsibility is central to improving the workplace. Interview by Nick Warburton.

Dr John Izzo’s background is an eclectic one. Drawing on his work in social justice, corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability, the former minister turned business leadership expert has spent the past two decades helping companies discover the Holy Grail – vibrant, vital workplaces that inspire and engage employees and boost productivity.

Recognised as a modern philosopher on work and life, who consults and advises some of the most respected corporations across the world, Dr Izzo will be bringing his unique insights and experience to this year’s IOSH conference, both as chair and keynote speaker on the first day.

His presentation on ‘Stepping up – how taking personal responsibility changes everything’ will provide much ‘food for thought’ for delegates wishing to find inspiration on how workplace safety and health can be taken to the next level.

As Dr Izzo explains, the premise behind his idea of individuals taking 100 per cent responsibility, making no excuses and committing to bringing about positive change is a straightforward one.

“I talk about the two magic numbers,” he says. “Number one – what part am I playing? Number two – what can I do about it as opposed to, what part is someone else playing and what should they do about it? That’s not to say others shouldn’t also take responsibility but because we are only in control of ourselves, everything starts with us asking those two questions about ourselves.”

What this means in practice is that anyone, no matter what their position in an organisation, can be a leader or agent of positive change, inspiring and motivating others to help create more purposeful and fulfilling workplaces.

“A leader is anyone that has a positive influence on the people around them,” he continues. “I know people who have leader on their business card who don’t have a positive influence on the people around them. I also know people who are at the front line that create an incredible ripple of positive influence around them.”

This ‘responsibility ripple’ is one of the concepts discussed in the best-selling author’s latest book, Stepping Up. Dr Izzo plans to draw on the publication to show delegates how taking personal responsibility can enhance not only someone’s work environment, but also their personal life and wider society.

“Each time someone steps up and takes responsibility at whatever level they are in the organisation, they create a ripple of responsibility with others,” he points out.

“In the context of safety, if one person challenges a colleague, which is often a very difficult thing to do, then it makes others more likely to step up and take responsibility.”

To do this, however, Dr Izzo argues that managers also need to create a climate that encourages the workforce to feel comfortable about challenging someone, especially when they see a potential issue that could lead to a safety incident.

“If people are praised for efforts and not just results, if people can admit mistakes and you create an environment of learning instead of shame and blame, people are much more likely to be in a place of ownership,” he explains.

“What do we do as businesses that will make it more likely that people will take personal responsibility and ownership? Things like giving people a seat at the table.”

Impact of work
Perhaps not surprisingly, much of Dr Izzo’s thinking on these issues stems from his time working in the local community as a minister. During the early 1980s, he was assigned to a congregation in Youngstown, Ohio just as the region’s steel industry was falling into decline and mills were starting to close.

“I had a lot of parishioners who were lower-level managers and front-line employees in the steel mills and I watched the impact of how people were treated at work and [how it impacted] on their lives,” he reflects.

“They were often not treated with respect and dignity. I got a fire in the belly for the impact that work had on people’s lives.”

After gaining a PhD in organisational communication, Dr Izzo did a number of stints as an internal organisation development manager for several US companies and then took on the role of vice president at a consulting firm.

In 1994, however, he ventured out on his own and co-wrote the international bestseller, Awakening Corporate Soul. Since then, he’s advised over 600 corporations across the world, helping them to create highly engaging, positive work places.


“There is no doubt that at Qantas safety is the single most important priority among all things”

Australia’s national airline, Qantas, the second oldest commercial operator in the world and the proud owner of a superlative safety record, is a case in point.

“There is no doubt that at Qantas safety is the single most important priority among all things,” he says. “You hear it just in the way that every person in the organisation talks about it. It’s hardwired into the way they think about the organisation.

“What I learnt is what happens when you make that a source of deep pride for people. One of the greatest sources of pride is to be such an incredible safe operation and over time that becomes almost like being on a winning team.”

But Dr Izzo argues that leaders need to learn that safety isn’t just something that they do. If it becomes a source of what it means to be part of a company, he explains, that creates a different type of dynamic. The Qantas experience also taught him that leaders need to embrace change.

“It’s about always being in that learner mode and being open to new ideas, learning from others rather than thinking you’ve got it licked,” he says.

“Here’s how I know that Qantas really cares about safety – they even worry about being considered too safe! One of the things that they work really hard to do is continually ask, ‘I wonder what others are doing that we’re not’.”

Focus of control
From his work with corporations on the global stage, Dr Izzo feels that finger pointing and blame is a constant theme, no matter where a business is located. He believes that large organisations often breed this culture because employees feel far removed from the decision making process. One of the models that he takes into companies to try and overcome this is what he calls the ‘focus of control’.

“In each moment, every one of us can either choose to look at what we can’t control or what we can control and what we can influence,” he says. “I do think we have an epidemic of victimitis.”

Returning to an earlier theme, Dr Izzo explains how leaders will often foster this ‘victim mentality’ by not giving people a seat at the table in the decisions that impact on them. They will often issue commands instead of involving people in the ‘why’ of things.

“Using safety as an example, it’s one thing to say, ‘We’ve got to do this, here’s the new rules’. It’s another to engage people in the understanding of the research of the ‘why’ so that it becomes their ‘why’ and not the leader’s ‘why’.”

Using his observations of working with a diverse range of organisations, Dr Izzo says that one of the longstanding problems is that many still operate top down, hierarchical models whereas today’s workforce expects to be treated like partners. What’s more, as work places greater demands on employees’ time and energy, people are looking for greater meaning in their lives, especially at work.

This ‘higher purpose of work’ theme is explored in Awakening Corporate Soul. As Dr Izzo points out, the findings from several studies suggest that there is almost a one-to-one relationship between how proud people are of the products and services that their company provides and their commitment and engagement at work.

“It turns out that when people see a deep purpose in their own work, they call in sick less often, they are more productive, they are more committed, and they work longer hours voluntarily. In other words, there is a real connection between this sense of purpose and the real business outcomes that we are interested in.”

Complex creatures
Employers will often think of employees like the family dog, he continues. If they reward the person and give them the right amount of treats, they’ll do whatever they want them to do. But human beings are incredibly complex creatures.

“If we can appeal to the deeper things that human beings think about and entertain in their lives, like purpose, like meaning, like contribution… we get a part of the person that maybe another company wouldn’t get.”

As a former minister used to talking about the deeper questions in life with parishioners, none of this surprises him. But it’s not just his work through the church that has shaped his thinking.

Dr Izzo is also a fellow of the EastWest Institute, an international, non-partisan organisation that seeks to make the world a safer place by working to overcome intractable problems that threaten regional and global stability.

Over the past three decades, he has been heavily involved in philanthropic work, mainly around conservation, the environment and poverty and this has fed through into his thinking around corporate social responsibility.

“I think there has really been an awakening in the corporate community of leaders realising that being a good corporate citizen is going to be critical to people wanting to buy from you, to work for you and also a recognition that business does not exist in a vacuum,” he says.

“For many businesses, I think they are realising that the context for business is a sustainable society. Without that, you can’t “If we can appeal to the deeper things that human beings think about and entertain in their lives, like purpose, like meaning, like contribution… we get a part of the person that maybe another company wouldn’t get” have a sustainable business. [Unfortunately] it’s not going nearly as fast as it needs to for the problems that we face.”

The world of work has indeed changed beyond recognition over the past two decades and as competition and technological advances have forced organisations to adapt at an increasingly accelerated pace, these demands have impacted heavily on the workplace and on employees.

However, with individuals looking for more meaning and a greater purpose in their work and their lives in general, Dr Izzo feels that both employers and employees will need to step up and adopt a fresh mind-set. The benefits of doing this can already be seen in companies like Qantas.

“There’s only one life,” he concludes. “Often the same things that make us successful, make our kids successful and make our lives happier are the same things that create a vibrant, vital workplace. I just try to connect all those dots for people.”

Dr John Izzo will present the keynote address: ‘Stepping up – how taking personal responsibility changes everything’ at 9.50am on Tuesday, 16 June.  

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